Testing to see if you are an Eco Poser


It’s cool to be green. Especially in Missoula. Here’s how to test to see if you are an Eco Poser.

As the decision makers decide our future, it often seems to boil down to one philosophy of “green” vs. another philosophy of “environmentalism”. And then an “eco” position is thrown in just to make things interesting. Aren’t these all supposed to be the same?

I recently saw a documentary where a wind farm was forbidden by the government because of local outcry. The woman who led the resistance said “We must all do our part for the environment.” The people who wanted the wind farm said pretty much the same thing. Leaving the real argument aside, I was very interested in a few clues that were given up about this woman’s personal life. My impression, based on very limited data, was that she probably considered herself to be an environmentalist. And yet, if there were some sort of super accurate machine that could measure her eco-level based on her actions over the last year, I think she would score poorly. Very poorly.

I suspect that most people who would call themselves an environmentalist would score poorly. I suspect that most of the people who decide our future and claim their efforts fall under the flag of “improving the environment” would also score poorly. The problem isn’t that they are nefarious. Or stupid. It’s just that the eco information they have been exposed to is probably some form of greenwashing misinformation – and plenty of it. So, how do you, dear reader, find out if you are really an eco-warrior, or are an unwitting eco-poser? Well, I’ve come up with a quick and simple test.

The complexity of a truly accurate test could fill a library and would change daily depending on new information and problems as they are discovered. The discussion and debate over the quality and validity of the test would fill a hundred more libraries. But since I am seeking something very simple, I came up with something that is massively permissive. It allows half of the current population of the United States to proudly sport the label “eco” or “environmentalist.”

But the gut wrenching part is that most of the people (yes, more than half) who read this article, and are utterly certain that they are “eco” are about to learn that they are, actually, posers. I won’t tell. I promise! Don’t kill me!

I’m gonna call this “The Wheaton Eco Test.” This makes it so that everybody who fails the test, can make their own test, because, obviously, this test was defective. Maybe “The Poppins Eco Test” would heavily favor umbrella-based transportation schemes.

The average American spends about $1000 for heat and electricity per adult per year (average of $83 per month). $250 for electricity without heat (average of $21 per month). The test is to spend less than the average. With one whammy: kids don’t count. So a household with two adults and four kids needs to spend as little as a household with just two adults.

The point about the kids is that one of our great eco challenges is overpopulation. I think it is fair that if somebody is going to have kids, and they wish to call themselves “eco” that they will keep their energy footprint within the average for just the parents.

There you go. That’s the whole test. If you spend less than that, congratulations! You made it to eco level 1! We have sooooo much cool stuff to talk about – like eco levels 2 and 3 and the rest. But for now, I need to talk to the angry people coming at me with torches, pitchforks, and other-sharp-things to teach me about peace and love through the art of stabbing.

This simple little test emerged after years and years of struggling to talk to thousands of people about different trains of thought in what it means to be eco. Or to be an environmentalist. I soon learned that some people were adamant that they were eco and they could prove it to be true by saying it very loudly. Usually, their justification was rooted in living a life that was 5% more efficient than some point in their more wasteful past. And they had no idea just how wasteful their lives were. Or are.

So they might currently be spending three times the national average on electricity, but that was 5% less than they used to spend, therefore they are an environmentalist. I guess when it comes to energy, it sorta seems “free” until the electric bill comes. There is typically no indicator of how your power use compares to others’. And there is very little reliable information on what really works or what is just somebody trying to sell you their stuff. And it isn’t like you get to know how much your neighbors spend on electricity. So do you spend five times more than your neighbor? Five times less? I think most people would be shocked to learn how much their bathing and laundry habits really cost. And how some very simple changes can save hundreds, or even thousands of dollars while sacrificing almost no comfort.

So, let’s get a grip on this. Energy use is a great eco metric. Most of our pollution problems are rooted in the source of our energy use. Pollution and war are the two biggest side effects. People who really care about humanity and the earth, will use (I think) less than average. We have all of the statistics on what is the average power consumption. So a touch of math is all it takes.

Out of the $1000, $750 is for heat. So to repair things, that’s the easiest place to start. But this article is really about how people are sure they are eco, but, it turns out, they are not. So instead, I want to focus for a moment on laundry.

Americans spend $30 per adult per year on energy for laundry. I’m going to say that there are households out there that are utterly certain that they are “an eco house” and spend $200 per adult per year on energy for laundry. They are certain that their laundry habits are good for the environment because their laundry habits used to cost $250 per year. And there are households out there that are equally certain that they are “environmentalists” who spend $10 per year. To get an idea of what your household might spend, visit this laundry costs calculator (there is a lot of information on this site that I don’t agree with, but the calculator is first rate!). To be “laundry eco”, all you gotta do is come in less than $30 per person per year. For years, I’ve washed only in cold water in a front-loading washing machine, and I dry everything on a clothes line or drying rack. I use a quarter of the recommended detergent.

The calculator says I come in at $5 per year, so I have a lot of eco wiggle room. As an added bonus, my clothes will last about ten times longer because they are no longer subjected to the tumbling action of clothes dryers.

Paul Wheaton's eco test pie chart.Oh sure, there are lots of people who insist on waving the eco flag, but the idea of a clothes line just doesn’t fit with their lifestyle. I wish to be clear: the clothes on the clothes line is the eco flag.

Out of the $1000 per year, the averages are:


  • $750 is for heat
  • $60 is for hot water
  • $40 is for lighting
  • $30 for laundry
  • $30 for refrigeration
  • $20 for cooking

For where I am living now, electric heat is my only option. I feel like it is a warm and toasty 75 degrees, but I will finish the winter having paid about $50 for heat for the whole winter. The trick is to heat myself with micro electric heaters and not the whole house. But there are other solutions that can bring the heat bill to zero. Like rocket mass heaters or using annualized thermal intertia like PAHS or wofati.

I spend less than $10 per year for energy for lighting and because I object to the toxicity of CFLs, I use only incandescent lights. Northwestern Energy has probably spent $20 to try to convince me to switch to CFLs, but I’ve done the math and the most energy they would save me is maybe $4 per year and since CFLs make my friends sick, I don’t want them. I have a lot more to say about light bulbs.

I just added up my power bills for 2011:

jan 48.02
feb 53.30
mar 48.89
apr 31.85
may 42.95
jun 28.78
jul 30.33
aug 44.78
sep 31.59
oct 42.90
nov 32.00
dec 41.28

I work from home, so I suppose this could be about 30% lower if I didn’t. I suppose if a like-minded person lived with me, then the bill would probably be about 20% higher but my per-person footprint would get to be about 40% smaller. The moral of the story is that sharing a living space vastly improves your eco score.

I have plans for cutting that to less than $200 per year while living in a bigger place, but the plans for all that could fill a few books – and that’s while staying on the grid with electic heat.

This might be a good point to mention that these numbers are for the the US, which are four times larger than the world average. Another interesting note is that folks in New York City use about half the electricity of the US average. Probably because the high cost of housing encourages folks to have smaller living spaces, which, in turn, use less power.

I’m okay with folks using more power than average. The problem I am attempting to address is “environmentalists” who seem to make the environment worse in the name of environmentalism. The world’s problems cannot be solved until we first sort out the greenwashing from the green. This one metric can help.

*** Special note: all of the numbers that reflect the average cost per adult actually show total US dollars divided by the number of adults in the US. As if there were no kids – even though kids do, indeed, consume energy. Like a teenager taking a daily 45 minute long shower. I went round and round on this, and in the end decided to favor the simpler numbers for the sake of a quick metric. If you want to do the stricter “per person”, then replace $1000 with $800.

*** Another special note: I used many sources for this information, and a lot of them had slightly conflicting numbers. This link should help to explain some of my number sources and initial rough calculations.

BIO: Paul Wheaton is is the tyrannical ruler of two on-line communities. One is about permaculture and one is about software engineering. There is even one for Missoula. Paul has written several permaculture articles starting with one on lawn care that he presented at the MUD Project 17 years ago, including articles on raising chickenscast iron and diatomaceous earth. Paul also regularly uploadspermaculture videos and permaculture podcasts. In his spare time, Paul has plans for world domination and is currently shopping for a hollowed out volcano in the Missoula area, with good submarine access.

See all of Paul’s contributions to MakeitMissoula on this Blog Homepage here.